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Science Summer School research investigates arsenic, lead detected in whelks


Anne-Louise Brown
13 January 2016
High levels of arsenic and lead detected in whelks living in the waters of the NSW North Coast will be investigated as part of Southern Cross University’s annual Science Summer School.

The project is one of five being conducted as part of the Science Summer School, a four-week program connecting university students from across Australia and the world with Southern Cross University researchers. The school aims to nurture budding researchers, giving them hands-on experience in field work, laboratory work, data gathering and report writing.

Associate Professor Kirsten Benkendorff, from SCU’s Marine Ecology Research Centre, is working with third-year Southern Cross University environmental science student Peter Butcherine, examining the levels of heavy metals, and whether the gastropods are a viable alternative protein source for humans.

“Whelks are predatory snails that rely on healthy prey populations. They bio-accumulate pollutants from their prey and because they remain on the same reef and can live for many years, they can provide a concentrated ‘signature’ of pollution in the local environment,” Professor Benkendorff said.

“They are primarily consumed in Asia, but are also popular in many countries throughout Europe and South America. They provide a very rich source of protein and have an ideal lipid composition for human health that is high in omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. Australian whelks could be developed as a novel seafood for an Australian niche or export market.

“The whelks also produce some interesting natural products that we have been testing for anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. However, in order to test the safety of consuming whelk flesh, we have also been examining the heavy metal concentrations, such as lead, copper, zinc, silver and arsenic.

“The heavy metals are most likely accumulated from their invertebrate prey, which include filter feeding mussels, oysters, cunjevoi, tube worms and barnacles, as well as herbivorous snails. These prey species accumulate the heavy metals directly from the water, particularly in areas where the sediment is disturbed, such as on intertidal reefs with lots of wave action.

“Our preliminary data indicates that certain heavy metals are concentrated in high levels in whelk flesh at particular locations. The heavy metal composition changes significantly between sites and in some cases could just be due to general differences in the geology of the reefs, but in other cases there is a clear indication of localised environmental pollution.”

Mr Butcherine said the school had provided an invaluable opportunity to work alongside researchers at the forefront of their field and encouraged him to pursue Honours research.

“I’m especially interested in environmental pollution and its indicators and a bio-indicator like whelks provide a way to rapidly assess the overall health of an eco-system,” he said.

“I applied for the Science Summer School because I wanted to see what research is really like, get out in the field and improve my own research skills. It’s really cemented my decision to continue with Honours research after I graduate.”

Science Summer School coordinator Professor Andrew Rose of Southern Cross GeoScience said the program provided an opportunity for undergraduate students to find out what it is like to do scientific research.

“Students typically work on a small component of a real research project being undertaken by a researcher at Southern Cross University, enabling them to produce results that directly contribute to the project and in many cases to publications from the work,” he said.

“In this way, students experience different aspects of research including literature searching, designing and conducting experiments, analysing results, and preparing the work for publication or presentation.

“For researchers, the Science Summer School is a great way to test out new research ideas, make contact with potential future research students, and develop their student supervision skills.

“For most students, the school is their first experience of research. Programs like this are critical in providing students with the opportunity to understand what a career in research means, and give students a sense of the huge range of possibilities that research can bring for them, and for society.”

Southern Cross University’s Science Summer School runs until 29 January.
Photo: Associate Professor Kirsten Benkendorff and student Peter Butcherine examine whelks for their research.